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Navigating Dire Straits

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Navigating Dire Straits
– in the depths of crisis –

There comes a day when the equanimity and deep sense of relaxation gained in the months at Esalen wears off. When the glorious memories of living in a community of likeminded people turn into a longing. A longing that – in urban single life – might well be unfulfilled day after day. That’s when many of us who write here have entered a deep valley of despair. Melanie was hit after a few days only, housesitting at Stinson Beach all by herself, “I called the gate every day to check out what I was missing. I cried with friends over the phone every day. I was missing everyone and everything constantly. I wanted to come back every day. I didn’t feel ready for life outside of Esalen yet. There is no such thing as being ready. I ate breakfast alone. I went for long walks on the beach with Sophie the dog. I looked in the cars, stores, on the streets for all the faces I had grown to love.

Suddenly three weeks had passed, and I realized all I had done was try to deal with my strong emotional attachments to beautiful memories. I still did not have a job, a plan, or a place to live for the next week. I couldn’t imagine what kind of job I would do now. I was beginning to wish I had completed the thirty bodies I needed to get my massage certificate.

Then the phone rang. An extended student at the gate needed someone to work for him for a month. Did I want to do it? My plan began to unfold: I could finish my 30 bodies and get my massage certificate. I could do Esalen massage in the world. This is something that I could see myself doing. Wherever I go. After a tearful goodbye to Sophie, I drove my loaded red Honda and emotions right back down that hill, right back up to Gardenview.”

After the euphoria of her first months was over, Katrina also found herself back in her native England in dire straits, “I spent much of the time since I left Esalen struggling with a lot of shame around feeling so low when I have been given so much from my time at Esalen and so many tools to help myself with. I noticed I was resistant to contributing to this guide [about leaving Esalen] because of these feelings, and sorely tempted to paint a prettier picture, but the truth is that it has been so much harder than I’d ever thought it could be to make my life feel meaningful again after living in such rich community.”

From the majestic coast of Big Sur Andrea returned to Sao Paulo, one of the biggest and possibly toughest megacities in the world. “I felt so unhappy in my transition ...it felt as if my soul was being squeezed. I lost all my vitality and love for life. I was mad at the Creator. I could not understand why He wanted me in this big concrete jungle, and to tell you the truth I quite don’t know yet ... but it is fine for now.”

Anna had left California feeling so grateful, so enriched by her whole experience, that she didn’t mind going home at all, “I felt so happy and strong that I was convinced it would be easy to stay happy and readjust myself in Belgium. I thought I could handle anything. I was so wrong; I’d been back for two weeks when the Twin Towers collapsed. I felt like those towers.

First of all, readapting to the climate was way more difficult than I’d expected. September 2001 was the wettest month in the history of Belgian weather report statistics. I grew up with 250 days of rain per year, but to be thrown back in that rain after three-and-a-half years of sun felt like being bombed by metal sheets, both emotionally and physically. I’d always been strong and healthy. But in a few months time, I started suffering from arthritis, gastritis, oesophagitis, and pancreatitis. Now, three years later, I still have occasional flareups of all of these.

Then, there was the fact that I had changed tremendously. But my old friends hadn’t. Belgium hadn’t; It still is very much in the ban of centuries of Catholic oppression and of Cartesian thinking. Yoga, Buddhism, I Ching, meditation, astrology, dancing if you’re over 25, believing in energy, wearing colorful clothes – any of this is enough to make you suspicious here, to make you a weirdo. And, worst of all, Belgians don’t hug. And don’t talk to strangers.

All that had been normal in Big Sur and LA, all that had made me feel so at home there, was non-existing here. I felt completely isolated, had no one who shared my interests and beliefs, no one to hug me and hold me. I fell into a deep depression. By moments I was close to psychosis. I’d been there before. But that had been many years ago. I had never expected to fall so deep down again. It was horrible.”

Maiko-San writes from Kyoto that she felt “so strange” when she arrived in Japan, “Everywhere I heard Japanese, but in my head I was still thinking in English. It was as if I had flown too fast by airplane so my physical body already found itself in Japan but my soul was still back at Esalen. I couldn’t keep up. Noise, air pollution, people looking tired and rushed. No ocean. I felt ungrounded. Or maybe I didn’t want to connect to my hometown, which is a big city.

During the first month, I focused too much on the negative sides of city life, I think. ‘Oh, too many cars; I don’t want to breathe in these exhaust fumes; not enough fresh vegetables; there is no movement class every afternoon… I need to wait for a dance class that I can go to only once a week now; I want to do things when I feel like doing them.’ Thoughts like that.”

What Lilly found difficult was not so much worrying about herself and her husband in an unknown situation and unclear future, “but to deal with other people’s never ending questions and subliminal judgments about me ‘not having it all planned out,’ especially family, friends, and acquaintances outside of the Esalen world; I found it tiring and sometimes even offensive to justify my actions.”

When Tobias left Esalen, the first couple of days away from the institute felt a bit like being on a road trip to him, a bit like holidays, he writes. This feeling didn’t last long, however, “It soon became very obvious that all at once I’d just left a network of people, a home, and a job behind. The requirements of today’s life hit quickly: finding a place to stay, creating some income to make a living, etc., etc. Without the help and support of friends, I don’t know how I would have gotten by.

Transitioning into life outside Esalen is a big awareness practice. I wish I had gotten this lesson earlier. In my case this emotional process had several phases:

1.  Excitement (Life.... here I come, the world waited long enough)
2.  Consternation (Well, some people obviously didn’t wait for me)
3.  Frustration (Why can’t they see, it would be so cool if...)
4.  Isolation / Solitude (There must be something wrong with me then...???)
5.  Anger (Fuck’ em, everything is better somewhere else....)
6.  Revelation (Well, maybe not...)
7.  Fear (Will I be able to support myself financially?)
8.  Gratitude (Doing what I see to be my duty in life, and having fun doing it)
9.  Relaxed Excitement (Wow, life is even bigger than I thought)

This process took me three years! Time is necessary, yet I still do believe that if I had received guidance during the process, I could have saved some agony and at least a year to get to the point where I am today. I wish I could have had Esalen alumni helping me, somebody who had gone through the process themselves.”

Tina, who moved to the United Kingdom with her English husband-to-be, experienced something like a time-warp during the first few months after her departure from Esalen and the US. “Interestingly enough, the memory of this life left behind was still very vivid and very close; however, it seemed like a different lifetime, like ages ago. It was at least six months before I felt sadness when I thought about my life at Esalen. I had to remind myself quite a few times that Esalen hadn’t been easy for me all the time. Memory seemed to shift into extremes.”

Marie from Copenhagen has been to Esalen twice. During her first visit to California, she spent four months as a workscholar and afterwards studied Buddhism at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Sausalito. “When I returned to Denmark the first time, my plan was to go straight back to California. I realized that I had to postpone that due to financial reasons and ended up working in Denmark for ten months before I went on my second trip to California. So I wasn’t prepared for the [first] transition which, I think, made it much more stressful. Suddenly I had to find a place to live and a job very fast, and the demands of everyday life were overwhelming.

I felt pretty lonely during that time. My family wasn’t much help. I had to deal with all the practical things myself, and at the same time I reconsidered my relationships to my friends and family. Where were they at and where was I at now? My friends seemed very busy with their own lives, not that interested in what I had experienced, or they could not really understand it, and it was hard for me to express my experiences too. I missed like-minded people who knew of Esalen and the spiritual and alternative lifestyles in California, folks with whom I could share my experiences. I was used to having people around me all the time and to living in spectacular surroundings by the Pacific Ocean - and suddenly I found myself alone in a big, crowded city. This was a very hard time. I had times when I felt lonely, depressed, and confused about what to do and what I really wanted. I think it took at least half a year before I felt that my everyday life was somewhat meaningful again and my relationships stable.”

community – September 27, 2006 – 10:35am